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UNDERCOVERS is a five-season, 25-episode television drama series based on the incredible true story of the police spies who infiltrated British activist groups over the last 50 years... and the women who unwittingly had long-term relationships and even children with the spies.
As gripping an identity thriller as Homeland... as complex a political drama as The West Wing... as devastating a betrayal as Atonement... UNDERCOVERS contains many of the elements of the very best TV dramas. And then it has one more thing which none of the biggest international shows have had before. Something which makes it genuinely unique and heart-stoppingly dramatic.
It is all true.
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So, that's it, we're making a TV drama series. But seeing as how we've only made docs and one drama-doc before, we are going to be employing grown-up drama writers and directors and whathaveyou whenever we get out of our depth.
As I mentioned in my last message a few months ago, our friend Helen Steel from McLibel is one of the women who had a long-term relationship with one of the police spies, and who are now suing the police. (Listen to Helen on Women's Hour here, watch the Dispatches documentary here, join their campaign here, follow them on twitter here). After more than ten years hearing the twists and turns of Helen's horrifying story, it finally struck me that the most powerful thing we could do both to help her and to try to ensure it never happens again is to make a long-running drama series. Because a documentary would be too past tense ("twenty years ago I really loved him") and a 90 minute movie wouldn't give enough screen time for such a multi-layered, cross-generational, multiple-character, many-themed story.
Five seasons, five world-changing themes
UNDERCOVERS’ narrative is nothing less than the history of the last 50 years of Britain, told from the perspective of activists fighting for social change. The over-arching themes of the five seasons are some of the defining political and social issues of our time: the economy, climate change, food, race relations and war. Viewers will re-live major events - including 9/11, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, 7/7, the arrival of mobile phones and the internet, the McLibel trial, the killing of Ian Tomlinson and the global economic crash - but from the new perspective of the social change campaigners who were warning of the dangers sometimes decades before these tumultuous events.
After spending the last six months talking to the mainstream TV industry about the police spies, we've come to understand that we'd never get to make the series we want to make if we signed up to be bound by a broadcaster's editorial priorities and constraints. So, hey ho, we've decided to stay true to the Spanner spirit and make and distribute UNDERCOVERS independently. The situation is similar to that in which we were in 18 years ago, when we were trying to get a commission for a documentary about the McLibel trial, but Channel 4 and BBC were wary after their own legal run-ins with McDonaldl's. We took what was, back then, the very radical decision to go ahead and do it on our own with no money, no industry backing and no definite broadcast, in the hope of selling the film to telly (this was pre-internet) afterwards. With hindsight - and 26 million viewers later - that was a mighty right decision.
So all we have to do is do that again. Simple. Except the budgets for drama are MUCH bigger than for documentary. And that's if you're making one hour, when we plan to initially make 4 or 5 hour-long episodes, followed by another 16+ episodes if the first ones are successful...
Our first Tony
Square one: gather wisdom from the guru of political TV drama, Mr Tony Garnett - the producer of Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home and Kes, as well as Up The Junction and numerous other change-the-world classics. Now in his 8th decade, Tony is still lighting fires under television arses "If you want to make dramatic fiction for the screen you must first strangle your creative impulses." After some very tasty ravioli "My condition is that I buy the lunch, as a thank you for the excellent work you have done so far", we were not only 1000 times wiser as to the countless bear traps we were racing towards, but we also had our dream Executive Producer onboard!
Sadly Slumdog Millionaire writer and Age of Stupid crowd-funder Simon Beaufoy is too busy to actually write the thing - what with his play of The Full Monty currently playing in the West End, as well as being commissioned to write both a 10-part series Telemark with Danny Boyle and another series based on the Len Deighton novels Hook Line and Sinker about espionage in the Cold War years - but he is definitely up for helping out in some as-yet-undefined creative role.
How will you see it?
145 million people watch video online in the USA, compared to 290 who watch TV.... And in Britain, 1 in 4 people watch more online than on TV. And that's in 2013 - by the time our series is ready for broadcast, the world will have changed even further. And as we'll own the rights to our series, we'll be able to sell it to Netflix or Channel 4 or Amazon or iTunes or all of the above or whoever we think will reach the most number of viewers.
These new forms of distribution are currently driving TV people wild - see Jeffrey Katzenberg's insane (or is it?) $75million offer for three additional episodes of US hit show Breaking Bad - which is why Lizzie was invited to speak about our UNDERCOVERS plans on a "Film Distribution In the Digital Age" panel with Philip Knatchbull (CEO of the Curzon cinema chain and Artificial Eye distributors), Andy Green (Founder of Distrify), Annette K Olsen (Director of Borgen), Ted Hope ("one of the 25 most powerful people in the independent film world" - Hollywood Reporter) and Alan Parker (legend). The general consensus was that our plans are sound and we might just do it - if we make a brilliant series which people all round the world want to watch.
So there we have it. We will keep you updated with UNDERCOVERS news as it happens. Until then, over and out.
With best wishes
* Yes, I seem to have become Professor of Film at Wolves University - but you can call me Prof.